Reviews /

Activist

Authored by Louisa Reid
Published by Guppy Books

Activist: Nicholas Tucker, as far back as 1984, observed that ‘Telling the truth to children, or at least some of it, sounds a severe brief for any writer’ (p.150)*. Louisa Reid’s truth here is a difficult but important read for all of us, no matter what gender we identify as, or when we last walked through the gates of a high school.

The verse novel tells the story of Cassie and her friends just after their private girls’ school has merged with the private boys’ school. It exposes the misogyny and abuse that occurs via social media, mobile phones and both inside and outside the school walls. It charts the dismissal of this behaviour as ‘banter’, the school’s disregard of it, and the exhausting fight that the pupils must sustain to ensure their voices are finally heard.

This text, or extracts from it, could work well in an English lesson, not simply for its content but also for its form, and visual impact on the page:

‘His friends are watching, creasing up and

Howling with the comedy

Of harassing us,

                                           At me

                                           Standing there

                                           trying to convince them

                                           that they

                                           Just. Aren’t. Funny.’

Undoubtedly, this novel will ignite several difficult debates and readers should be warned of the content, but it will also potentially provide a space and opportunity to open these conversations. The school itself is exposed because the patriarchal ideologies are so embedded as is illustrated when a year eleven girl declares that ‘a sixth-former grabbed my bum in the/canteen/ in front of Mr Sheen/ and he literally said not one word. /In fact, he said I should wear a longer skirt’. From Mr Sheen, to Cassie’s mother, to Dr March (the headteacher), the authorities, and those who should know better, all refuse to acknowledge the voices and stories of these girls who are not safe at school, and in fact, it is noted that Henry’s (one of the main perpetrators) father maintains his power through his significant financial donations to the school. Certainly, the abuse against women is not the only fight in this text. Lori, Cassie’s friend points out that ‘when we present/I’m going to talk about just how much worse/it is to be dealing with all this/ as a black student’. The friends are all, in a neat parallel, with women’s bodies, nature and power also protesting to try to prevent the cutting down of the local forest. The text has a wealth of subjects that readers whether alone, or in small reading groups, can get their teeth into, and of course ecofeminism, voice, patriarchy, and race are all connected here.

This is a hard hitting, but beautifully written verse novel. It does contain an account of a teenager who is raped having had her drink spiked at a party and this would more than likely make it a book for KS4 and above – depending of course, as ever, on the individual young person. The language, similar to the content, is appropriate for a slightly older reader. The novel, like much YA fiction and indeed life itself, does not manage to solve everything or completely resolve powerfully problematic ideologies, but it does offer hope, exposes what many students endure at school, and shows how changes can be made when we come together to take a stand, for as the quotation on the front cover declares ‘Who says we can’t change the world?’  Buy this book, read this book, put it in your libraries and classrooms and share it with as many people as you can.

*Nicholas Tucker. The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration. Cambridge University Press, 1984.